An inevitable roster purge awaits the Minnesota Vikings. This team’s once great roster is now aging, and it’s time for the team to pivot towards a youth movement.
Following the team’s Wild Card Round loss to the New York Giants, several rumors have come out regarding the future of many notable Vikings players on both sides of the ball. There have been rumors that these players could be traded or cut. However, some of them have a legitimate argument to remain with the team in 2023.
Today, we are going to play a game of Deal Or No Deal, Vikings edition. Which players should the team get rid of, and which players should the team keep? Let’s find out.
Contestant No. 1: WR Adam Thielen
Thielen is the longest tenured Viking on the offensive side of the ball, having been with the team since 2013. The Detroit Lakes, Minnesota native has become the team’s ultimate hometown hero, with nearly 6,700 receiving yards and 55 touchdown catches to his name. Despite not having the stats of many other great receivers this team has had, Thielen is up there in terms of top five receivers in team history.
However, injuries and age have slowly begun to catch up to Thielen, who will be 33 years old by the start of next season. Ever since a record-breaking 2018 season that saw him record 113 catches for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns, Thielen has not been the same player. Over the course of 2019 to 2022, Thielen has missed 11 games due to various injuries and when he has been on the field, he has not been very productive.
With the exception of 2020, a season that saw him record 924 yards and 14 touchdown catches, Thielen has not topped 726 yards in a season since 2018. Over the past two seasons, Thielen has only averaged 10.5 yards per reception and his longest catch has been for 36 yards. He has taken a clear back seat to Justin Jefferson as the team’s alpha dog receiver, and K.J. Osborn is beginning to show signs as the team’s new WR2.
Thielen has recently confirmed that the Vikings are working through some stuff on his contract due to his big cap hit, and also stated that while he would love to retire a Viking, he understands the league is a business. At this point, the Vikings are doing the right thing as Thielen’s contract, which brings the team a $19.9 million cap hit, is no longer justified. His decline in production coupled with the emergence of Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn as the team’s receiving tandem of the future has rendered him as a largely ineffective WR3.
Contestant No. 2: Safety Harrison Smith
Probably the most underrated safety of the 2010s, the 34-year-old Smith has been a mainstay on the Vikings defense since the team drafted him in 2012. A Swiss Army Knife, Smith has 946 tackles, 34 interceptions, and 16.5 sacks to his name.
However, like Thielen, Smith has gradually begun to show signs of decline. Despite recording five interceptions in 2022, Smith appeared to have lost a step in coverage, as he was targeted 44 times during the season and allowed 35 receptions, tied for 11th-most among all safeties. Smith’s 2022 season can be summed up with this statement: when thrown at, Smith either recorded an interception or was an easy target for the opposing quarterback. That’s very much prime Marcus Peters, who liked to gamble on big plays during his Chiefs and Rams tenures.
While Smith initially appeared to be a trade or cut candidate this offseason, the hiring of Brian Flores as the team’s new defensive coordinator may have changed things. Smith is an ideal player for a Flores defense, which sees defensive backs playing closer to the line of scrimmage, something Smith could do really well in his prime years. Give him one season with Flores as his defensive coordinator and see what he can produce. However, his $19.2 million cap hit for this upcoming season must be reduced in some way. A safety in today’s game is not worth that money and if he has another down year in 2023, Smith’s salary is going to be viewed as maybe the biggest liability to the Vikings roster.
Contestant No. 3: RB Dalvin Cook
After spending his first two seasons dealing with injuries, Cook broke out in 2019 and became the team’s offensive engine over the next three seasons under former coach Mike Zimmer. However, when current head coach Kevin O’Connell was hired and made Justin Jefferson the focal point of the offense, Cook’s efficiency began to take a steep decline.
According to Pro Football Focus, out of 36 running backs that logged at least 130 attempts, Cook ranked dead last in yards over expected. Essentially, when Cook got the ball, he didn’t do much with it. He only recorded 69 yards per game and averaged a career low 4.4 yards per carry. He had some notable big plays during the season, but wasn’t efficient at all outside of those big plays. 84 of his 264 attempts went for just one yard or even less. That is a major issue because Cook’s inefficiency puts more pressure on the passing game to deliver, which makes the Vikings offense easier to defend.
The Vikings could look to deal Cook, but he signed a five-year deal worth $63 million back in 2020, which is looking more egregious by the day. His cap hit for 2023 is a whopping $14.1 million, and trading or releasing him would lower his dead cap to $6.2 million. At this point, similar to Thielen, his contract does not justify his production.
Contestant No. 4: LB Jordan Hicks
Hicks is consistently underrated when it comes to linebackers. A free agent signing for the Vikings last offseason, Hicks had a solid first season in Minnesota, recording 129 total tackles, three sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble.
Because of his veteran status and the emergence of Brian Asamoah as the team’s linebacker of the future, Hicks has come up in trade or cut talks for the Vikings. His cap hit is $6.5 million, which is justifiable for a player of his production, but releasing him would only carry a dead cap hit of $1.5 million.
With Eric Kendricks showing signs of decline in 2022, Hicks was the best linebacker the team had to offer. I’m sure any veteran team would love to have him. Like Harrison Smith, the team should give him one season in a Flores defense and see what his production can be.
Contestant No. 5: LB Eric Kendricks
At his peak, Kendricks became an All-Pro linebacker while being one of the most underrated at his position. However, 2022 showed us that Kendricks has appeared to lose a step or two in his game and is no longer the player he once was.
On paper, his stats look good. He recorded 137 tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. However, his play did take a step back. Take a certain play in week 8 against the Arizona Cardinals: when matched up against wide receiver Rondale Moore, Kendricks goes for the ball rather than trying to make a tackle. This strategy backfired, and Kendricks both missed the tackle and failed to force a fumble, resulting in a Cardinals touchdown. This play was a consistent theme of Kendricks’ play throughout the season.
He was not much better in coverage, either. He was thrown at 85 times and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 64 of them for a completion percentage of 74.1. When targeting Kendricks, quarterbacks threw for 584 yards, two touchdowns, and had a passer rating of 100.3. However, his run defense was still good, as Pro Football Focus gave him an 81.1 grade when it came to that part of his play.
With the Vikings set to be $23 million over the cap, cutting Kendricks would save $9 million. With Jordan Hicks remaining a solid player and Brian Asamoah emerging as a successor to Kendricks, he is worth dealing this offseason.
Contestant No. 6: OLB Danielle Hunter
Hunter bounced back from two injury-plagued seasons to record 10.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2022. Though not as flashy as teammate Za’Darius Smith, Hunter was more consistent during the season.
Hunter, however, had his potential held back a little bit in the scheme of former defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Hunter, playing at the outside linebacker position for the first time in his career, was asked to frequently drop back into coverage despite coverage never really being a part of his game. Largely because of this, Hunter’s production was slightly held back.
It is entirely possible that with Brian Flores as the team’s new defensive coordinator, Hunter breaks out and has another monster year. Don’t forget that Hunter recorded six sacks in seven games in 2021 before injury cut his season short. While injuries are still a concern, keeping Hunter around for one season and seeing what he can do in the Flores defense is a good option. However, given that Hunter is a $13.1 million cap hit for the Vikings in 2023 and is due to become a free agent next offseason, it would not be shocking if the team either dealt him this offseason or signed him to an extension, which would save $3 million against the cap.
Contestant No. 7: FB C.J. Ham
A Duluth, Minnesota native, Ham is another hometown hero for the Vikings. The 5-foot-11, 250-pound fullback has often paved the way for Dalvin Cook to run through six-foot tunnels during the run-oriented Mike Zimmer era.
However, when Kevin O’Connell was hired as the Vikings head coach, the offense became more pass heavy than ever. Earlier, we discussed how that affected Cook, but it also affected Ham. The Vikings ranked 27th in rushing attempts this season, which led to less opportunities for Ham, as he only played in 15% of the team’s offensive snaps despite playing in all 17 games. It was more of the same in the playoffs, as he played 16 special teams snaps and only 11 offensive snaps.
Ham’s cap hit is $3.8 million, but the team can also save $3 million this offseason by trading or releasing him. With the direction that the offense is headed in, as well as the NFL in general, Ham’s departure feels inevitable at this point.
Contestant No. 8: OLB Za’Darius Smith
A free-agent signing last offseason, Smith’s Viking career got off to a torrid start, as he recorded 9.5 sacks in the first nine games. However, largely slowed by a knee injury suffered in the team’s Week 10 win at Buffalo, Smith would only record a half-sack for the remainder of the season, including none in his final three games (he missed Week 18 at Chicago).
While his 78 pressures ranked among the league’s best, Smith only recorded an average of 3.8 pressures per game after Week 11 and only had two pressures in the team’s Wild Card loss. While the knee injury could be the main reason Smith’s production gradually declined, he was not up to par as a player throughout the second half.
With Justin Jefferson, now the focal point of the team as a whole, due for an extension that will likely see him make north of $30 million per season, the Vikings cannot afford two high-priced pass rushers in the form of Smith and Hunter. Releasing Smith by June 1 would save the Vikings a whopping $13.6 million against the cap. While seeing a fully healthy Smith for a full season seems intriguing, releasing him seems to be the way to go, unless he is willing to take a pay cut. If I’m the Vikings, I’m only keeping Smith around if he can take a pay cut.
Our game of Deal or No Deal is now complete. What Vikings should the team say goodbye to this offseason? Are there any worth keeping around for 2023? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to read our other articles on the site. If you have a minute, follow us on Instagram and Twitter.